Hannah More: the gaps in the early life

Hannah More's birthplace, Fishponds

Clifton Windsor Terrace, where Hannah More died in 1833

When I was researching for  Hannah More: the First Victorian (OUP, 2003), my biography of Wilberforce’s friend and the ‘honorary man’ of the Clapham Sect,  I was stumped, as her  other biographers have been, by the difficulty of filling in the gaps in her early life. A comparison of the humble schoolmaster’s cottage where she was born (left: Hannah, her parents and four sisters were squashed into the left-hand wing) and the elegant house in Clifton where she died (right) makes it clear that she was a remarkable example of late-Georgian social mobility. The later years are well-documented, but the early life far less so.

I looked at the parish records and local newspapers, Hannah More’s letters, and of course consulted earlier secondary works. However, thanks to a meticulously researched and ground-breaking article by William Evans of the University of the West of England, I now know that a lot of what I wrote was inaccurate.

For the full article see William Evans, ‘Hannah More’s Parents’, Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 124 (2006), 113-30. This is my summary.

Hannah More’s father Jacob may be the Jacob More who was baptised in Norwich on 17 March 1699. There is no evidence that he attended Norwich Grammar School, as has frequently been asserted, but he may have been educated at a similar institution. The story that he lost money because of litigation over a large estate at Wenhaston cannot be corroborated. There was probably no such estate.

It has not been possible to corroborate the statement of More’s early biographer Henry Thompson that Jacob More was a supervisor of excise in Bristol as the records for the relevant period have nor survived. He may have held a post of which there is no longer a documentary trace, or perhaps a lower post than that of surveyor.

There is no trace in the local records of a Jacob More marrying a Mary Grace, previously believed to have been Hannah More’s mother. However in the records of St Werbergh’s church there is an entry for the marriage by licence on 2 July 1735 of Jacob More and Mary Linch.

The Gloucestershire Archives show that Jacob More was appointed master of the Fishponds school in 1743. The records show that he supplemented his meagre income by land surveying and valuing. In October 1751 Silas Blandford, land steward of the principal landowner, Norborne Berkeley, paid him for drawing a map of Kingswood. He was engaged in similar tasks in subsequent years. Hannah More always retained warm memories of Silas Blandford, whom she seems to have seen as a benevolent guardian of her family.

Jacob More’s tenure of the schoolmaster’s post at Fishponds ended in recriminations. The trustees kept poor records of the payments they made. In 1782, a time when Jacob would have long finished teaching, he was still receiving a salary and he and his wife continued to live in the schoolhouse. Jacob was meant to be paying a shilling a week to each of the two widows who lived in the other wing of the building, but he was paying it to only one. On 26 April 1783, shortly after Jacob’s death, his eldest daughter, Mary, by then a respected schoolmistress, wrote to the trustees of the school to defend her father from the charge of misappropriating the trust money. Her letter contained several inaccuracies, either innocent or intentional.

Evans has unearthed some intriguing information about Hannah More’s mother’s family. Mary Linch (Lynch) was baptised on 29 January 1718 at Stoke Gifford. The Lynches were an established family in the parish. In 1747 Mary’s sister Susannah married as her second husband  a carpenter, John Grace (so this is where the name Grace comes in!)  at Olveston, a parish five miles from Stoke Gifford, and gave birth to eight children. I note in my book Hannah More’s reference to the death of her ‘poor afflicted aunt’ in 1794. It is possible that Hannah More commissioned her memorial stone, a gesture she did not accord her parents.

These findings raise the intriguing question of why Hannah More, whether intentionally or not, obfuscated the details about her family.  By the time she was middle-aged, she was mixing with the gentry, the aristocracy, and even royalty. Perhaps she did not wish to be reminded too much that she was the daughter of a poor schoolmaster, who could not keep accounts and might even have defrauded a poor widow of the meagre sum that was owing to her.

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The Bristol slavers and the Wilberforce link

Pinney house 006

Charles Pinney’s house in Great George Street, Bristol, now open to the public as ‘The Georgian House’

In the wake of the film ’12 Years a Slave’, the Observer has published a timely article about Britain’s economic ties to the slave trade and slavery. The article focuses on Bristol in particular, where the historian Madge Dresser has done such valuable work, and one of the families it names is that of John Pinney. What isn’t so well-known is the link between the Pinney and Wilberforce families. This precipitated a particularly traumatic family crisis in 1827, which I set out in detail in chapter 14 of Wilberforce: Family and Friends.

By the late 1820s William and Barbara Wilberforce were spending a considerable amount of time in Bath. They went there for his health, but for Barbara it was also a pleasant opportunity to revive memories of her girlhood. She and her husband had met there in the spring of 1797 and had married within six weeks of their meeting. On their trips to Bath the couple were accompanied by their only surviving daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1801. Elizabeth was a lively, intelligent girl, but she often experienced poor health and was prone to depression, which might have been an unconscious reaction to her constrained life-style. While the lives of her four brothers were expanding, she seemed to be going nowhere.

In Bath, the Wilberforces became friendly with two widowed sisters, Elizabeth Baillie and Mary Ames. Mary Ames had married into a well-known Bristol banking family, and her late husband had been a partner with her younger brother Charles Pinney in the firm of Pinney, Ames & Co. The sisters occupied themselves with good works and seemed an exemplary pair to the Wilberforces.

Who was Charles Pinney?  He was the third son of the Bristol merchant, John Pinney, who was the owner of a substantial slave estate in Nevis. Charles had been born in 1793 in the house in Great George Street now open to the public as the Georgian House. He had inherited his father’s business skills and when John Pinney died in 1818 he inherited the Bristol house,  the Nevis property – and the slaves. Some time in the mid-1820s he met the Wilberforces probably through their common friend, John Scandrett Harford, the owner of the nearby Blaise Castle.

In April 1827, while the Wilberforces were lodging at no 3 Queen Square Wilberforce  was approached by Pinney, who asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. With what seems like astonishing naivety, Wilberforce responded sympathetically. In his letter to Pinney he discussed the possible marriage settlement but made no mention of his prospective son-in-law’s substantial interests in the West Indies or in the fact that he was also involved in granting mortgages to planters in need of funds. This was worse even than being a slave-holder as he was involved in slavery at a distance and had no control over the working conditions of the slaves.

The day after Wilberforce in effect agreed to the marriage, he received a blistering letter from his fiery abolitionist brother-in-law, James Stephen (great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf) which distressed him so much that he became ill. Suddenly the marriage did not seem such a good idea.  Barbara suggested that the family travel to Rothley Temple in Leicestershire to consult the family oracle, the evangelical landowner, Thomas Babington. A week later they set off. Of course in theory the choice rested with Elizabeth. At the age of 26 she had the legal right to make her own decision. But what could she do? After listening to Babington, Elizabeth broke off the relationship. As her mother put it in an apologetic letter to Mary Ames, she could not destroy her father’s peace of mind.  Wilberforce noted with relief in his diary that she did not seem too troubled by her decision, but the next day he had to report that she had been confined to her room all day with a headache. The crisis was over – but not without its casualties. Elizabeth’s thoughts on the subject have not survived, but it must have been an extremely distressing time for her.

In a somewhat petulant and ungracious letter, Charles Pinney accepted that the engagement was over. However, he continued to see himself as a wronged man. In her excellent Slavery Obscured: The Social History of Slavery in an English Provincial Port (Continuum, 2001), Madge Dresser suggests that his courtship of Elizabeth was self-interested, as he was a member of the West India Association, which was in the midst of conducting a transatlantic campaign to undermine the emancipation programme. In the general election of 1830 he was to help defeat the anti-slavery candidate, Edward Protheroe. In the following year he became mayor of Bristol and married the daughter of a Wiltshire landowner. This proved a bad year for him, as he lost control of the city during the Bristol riots and was tried (and acquitted) for neglect of duty. When slavery was abolished in 1834 he claimed about £36,000 as his share of compensation.

There was no happy ending for Elizabeth. Following the example of her godmother, Hannah More, she immersed herself in philanthropy, visiting the cottages of poor people and possibly undermining her own health in the process. In January 1831 she married a clergyman, the Rev John James of Lydney, and went to live in his poor Yorkshire mining parish at Rawmarsh. By this time she was already suffering from a hacking cough. In October she gave birth to a baby daughter, Barbara. She then went rapidly downhill and died in the Isle of Wight in March 1832.

The sad story of Elizabeth’s abortive courtship tells us a number of things. It shows us Wilberforce’s declining mental powers – he was to die six years later – that led him to take his eye off the ball and sanction a marriage that would have disgraced him in the anti-slavery community. It also shows the close links between abolitionists and the slave-holding community. In the tight-knit society of late-Georgian Britain it was not possible for these two communities to live discrete lives apart from each other. They were bound to come into contact socially and to get on with each other as best they could.

The Jeremy Forrest story: an eighteenth-century parallel

So now it seems that the exploitative former teacher, Jeremy Forrest, plans to marry the schoolgirl he abducted, once he has served his sentence, and that has the approval of the poor child’s hitherto absentee father. There is an eighteenth-century parallel to this distressing story that I tell in both my Hannah More and my Wilberforce books. It concerns the Bristol schoolteacher, Selina Mills, her pupil, the teenage heiress, Clementina Clerke, and an unscrupulous surgeon, Richard Vining Perry. The full references to the quotations are found in my books.

At the beginning of 1790 the twenty-three year-old Selina Mills and her younger sister, Mary, took over the More sisters’ popular and successful school in Park Street, Bristol. Selina was the daughter of Thomas Mills, a Bristol bookseller, who was also a member of the Society of Friends, though she and her sisters remained in the Church of England. Thomas Mills was rising in the world but he was not wealthy enough to provide an independent income for his daughters. Teaching was the only possible career for genteel, educated young women and the Mills daughters were fortunate to have in the Mores the supreme role model of how a family of sisters could benefit from the expanding demand for girls’ schools.

On the night of 20 March 1791 the school was thrown into a panic; it had lost a pupil and was about to become the centre of a national scandal.

The story gripped public attention because it read like the plot of so many novels of the period.  It had a youthful heroine in the person of Clementina Clerke, aged fourteen years and eleven months, the heiress to a fabulous West Indian (and therefore slave-derived) fortune (more than £10,000 per annum according to the newspapers); and it had a dashing and plausible anti-hero, a Bristol surgeon, Richard Vining Perry, who came out of the same reckless, unscrupulous mould as Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace and Jane Austen’s Wickham. But there was another possible plot, one familiar to readers of the novel of sentiment, which was to be brilliantly exploited by Perry’s defence council.  According to this narrative, as a blameless young man he just happened to see Clementina on her walks with her schoolfellows;

‘their eyes met in attraction and with a kind of electric fire shook them to their souls’.

It was irresistible love, therefore, and not cold avarice that motivated the susceptible heart of the gallant surgeon.

With the connivance of a servant at the school, the pair began a clandestine correspondence and planned their elopement. This took place on 18 March when a convincing looking servant, wearing livery and driving a chaise, delivered a letter to Selina Mills, purporting to come from Clementina’s guardian and requesting that she go to see him immediately. The unsuspecting Selina and her sister Mary saw her into the carriage and within a short time she and Perry were in a fast chaise and four heading north for the famous blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green, where the relaxed Scots law allowed for the marriage of girls over the age of twelve without requiring parental consent.

By the end of the day, when Clementina had failed to return, the story of the elopement came out. Overwhelmed with guilt and terror Mary Mills and her brother set out in pursuit, guessing correctly that the couple must have gone to Gretna. They managed to encounter them in Cumberland, driving in the opposite direction, as the pair headed south on their way to London. As the coaches slowed down in order to negotiate the narrow road, Mary Mills recognized her pupil in the other carriage and called out,

‘Miss Clerke, for God’s sake, Miss Clerke, let me speak to you!’

At this Perry put his head out of the window and told her that Miss Clerke was not there – she was now Mrs Perry. He shouted at the coachmen to drive on, leaving Mary and her brother helpless, forced to trundle northwards until they could find a safe turning place.

The pursuit then moved to London where a reward of £1000 was offered for Clementina’s return. Hannah More made frantic enquiries among the thief-takers of the capital, tramping around lodging houses in search of the couple, all the time in dread of Perry, who was reputedly armed at all times with a loaded pistol.  In order to escape from the law, Clementina disguised herself as a boy and the couple fled abroad to what was then the Austrian Netherlands. Mary and James Mills caught up with them in Ghent and tried to persuade the magistrates to close the town gates to prevent their escape. But lacking authorization from Clementina’s mother, who plays an ambiguous role in this story, the authorities were unable to act. Brother and sister returned home empty-handed.

For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce the two caricatures in the British Museum collection that appeared at this time. One, shown at Holland’s Exhibition Room in Oxford Street from 25 March, displayed an engraving,

The Elopement from Bristol – or too many for the Bristol Bumbrusher’.

It depicts a chaise and four within which a young man is embracing a girl who is holding a pistol and throwing her doll out of the window, a sign that she has abandoned childhood for the frisson of sexual adventure.  In case anyone missed the double meaning, The Times published a nudge-wink paragraph:

‘A PISTOL in the hands of CLEMENTINA PERRY would be absolutely a very dreadful weapon – were that same PISTOL at all like the lady in its readiness to GO OFF!’

The second caricature

‘A Perry-lous Situation; or, the Doctor and his Friends keeping the Bumbrusher and her Myrmidons at Bay’

was published on 17 April and was also exhibited in Oxford Street.  It is a more expensive engraving as it is in colour, and shows two opposing groups confronting each other. The right hand group includes a tall young man who has his arm round the waist of a young woman. He and another man are both aiming pistols at the left-hand group, consisting of a constable, his timid assistant and a schoolmistress holding a birch rod. The schoolmistress is saying

‘Let me get her again into my hands and I’ll tickle her Toby nicely’.

The constable’s assistant says,

‘In the name of Mistress Sharp-look-out, the Schoolmistress, I command you to deliver up little Miss____’.

The girl is saying,

‘Dear Doctor, protect me from my governess’.

Poor Selina Mills, a respectable and devout young woman, had been transformed in the popular imagination into the dominatrix of a flagellant brothel.

But in the spring of 1793 the French occupation of the Austrian Netherlands forced the Perrys to return to England. Richard Perry was promptly imprisoned and was joined by his pregnant wife, their little daughter, and his mother-in-law: a touching display of family loyalty which was said to have so melted the heart of the keeper that he allowed them the free range of the prison.

With Perry’s incarceration, the novel of sentiment was about to become a court-room drama, to be played for the highest possible stakes; Selina Mills had indicted him under a statute of Henry VII for the forcible abduction of a minor (defined as someone under the age of sixteen) and for marrying her without her consent. These were capital crimes, judged to be on a par with rape. In retrospect, the charge was unwise as it could easily be refuted by a simple assertion on Clementina’s part that she had gone with Perry of her own free will. Hester Piozzi, the former Mrs Thrale, shrewdly summed up the situation. As a ‘Maiden Lady’, she noted to a friend, Miss Mills knew nothing about marriage but any married woman could have told her how unrealistic it was

‘to dream of a Woman’s bastardizing her own Babies, and hanging the Father who could scarcely have been so if there had not been some consent on her side’.

Clementina would stand by her man. She had no choice. However, Selina Mills was encouraged in her action by the More sisters and by William Wilberforce, who managed to secure a new prosecuting counsel in place of a lawyer believed to be a friend of Perry’s.

The wheels of justice rumbled on, and on Monday 14 April 1794 Perry stood trial in Bristol before the Recorder of the city, Sir Vicary Gibbs. The leading counsel for Perry was the Whig barrister Thomas Erskine, famous for his brilliant defences or radicals, most notably Thomas Paine. Perry’s trial was going to be one of his easier cases. Public opinion, or at least the noisy and masculine part of it, was on his side, and the chief prosecution witnesses were two nervous women, Selina Mills and her sister Mary, now Mrs Thatcher, both unused to the rough ways of a criminal trial. Erskine was determined to give Selina a hard time and his cross-examination, as reported in the booklet, The Trial of Richard Vining Perry, was brutal.

The case collapsed when a heavily pregnant Clementina Perry, called to give evidence at the Recorder’s insistence, asserted that she loved Perry and had gone with him willingly.  No-one suggested that she might be under pressure from her husband. Given Mrs Perry’s assertions, the Recorder instructed the jury to return a verdict of Not Guilty, and they promptly obliged. The hall resounded with the cheers of the spectators, the couple kissed, and when they entered their carriage, volunteers removed the horses from the traces and drew the couple through the streets as if they had been successful election candidates.

Selina was left bruised and shattered by her courtroom experience. Five years later she married Wilberforce’s friend, Zachary Macaulay, and in October 1800 she gave birth to the future historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay. By this time the  Perry trial had been forgotten and neither Selina’s children nor the biographers of her famous son seem to have been aware of her brief moment of notoriety.

I have been unable to trace the future fortunes of Clementina Perry née Clerke. What strikes any modern reader of her story is the lack of protection the law at the time offered to young girls. With the age of consent as low as twelve, there was no understanding that they might need protection, not merely from predators, but from their own immaturity. To us Richard Vining Perry was an obvious villain, though a fortune-hunter rather than a paedophile. To many of his contemporaries, he was a hero.

A Link with the French Revolution

Wilberforce’s friend Hannah More also had an intriguing personal connection with the French Revolution. As she told her friend Eva Garrick, widow of the great actor-manager, David Garrick, in the early years of the Revolution, two French sisters had been teachers at the school in Park Street, Bristol, run by More’s sisters. The young women were ardent revolutionaries. (See Anne Stott, Hannah More. The First Victorian, Oxford, 2004, p. 151.) When one of them, Félicité Dupont, left the school and returned to France, she married , Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Brissot subsequently became the leader of the moderate Girondin faction in the revolutionary Convention, and he was guillotined in October 1793 (the same month as Marie Antoinette).  I wonder if any French scholars are aware of the relevant letter in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC (W.b.487, fo. 87, Hannah More to Eva Garrick, 21 November 1793), which shows Félicité’s links with Bristol.